Daniel Russell has a hypothetical pill for you to swallow. Take it, and you will become the mental equivalent of your dog.
“Hear me out,” said Russell, a University of Arizona philosophy professor at the Center for the Philosophy of Freedom. “It’s quite possible that your dog is far more satisfied with his or her life than you are with your life.”
Swallow the pill, and your life suddenly revolves around naps, ear scratches and jerky strips. Happiness becomes a short-term feeling doled out in intense, rapturous bursts. But the trade-off is personal fulfillment — and the capacity to seek enrichment and wisdom.
Would you do it?
Thought experiments like this drive Russell’s research. In front of a packed Fox Tucson Theatre on Wednesday night, he wrapped up the inaugural Downtown Lecture Series, presented by the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. The popular five-week event featured a diverse group of faculty speakers discussing the science of happiness.
“If you had told me in May we would have filled the Fox Theatre five Wednesdays in a row, I never would have believed you,” said John Paul Jones III, dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
“Tucson, you are the Athens of the West,” he told the crowd.
Russell urged the audience to consider happiness from a broad perspective during his hourlong talk, “Happiness — A Feeling or a Future?”
First, he said, there’s the question of our moment-to-moment mood. Scientists can track this with tools ranging from simple surveys to smartphone apps that randomly ask users how they feel.
“The one thing scientists definitely know they can measure,” Russell said, “is how frequently people feel good.”
But this is different from asking, “How’s life going for you?” Existential questions like this, he said, “are so broad that it’s very difficult to answer, so they tend to get skewed by whatever your mood is at the moment.”
It was on this level, in fact, that ancient philosophers like Aristotle defined happiness. Find things to live for, they advised, and then live for them.
But that doesn’t mean you should abandon your quest for simple pleasures.
“A good life can’t be miserable,” Russell said. “The danger comes when we think we figure it out and say: ‘Aha! Now we know what happiness is.’ ”
What if politicians were elected based on how happy they could make their constituents? It sounds promising, Russell said, but public policies designed to increase happiness tend to focus on quantity — since that’s the only thing scientists can reliably measure.
Such approaches may leave out considerations about personal fulfillment. They also take for granted how people achieve meaningful lives in different ways — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — the core components of our democracy.
“When we think about happiness from this larger perspective,” Russell said, “we start thinking about where our lives are going and the people we’re becoming.”
Or to put it another way, it’s probably best to pass on that hypothetical pill and take your dog for a walk instead.